In a December 2008 New York Times interview, Caroline Kennedy reportedly used the phrase "you know" 142 times. Scores of internet sites contain videos of other interviews in which she repeatedly, sometimes every few words, injected a "you know" into an answer. Watching those clips, it's hard not to wince; you begin to anticipate the next interrupting "you know" and focus your attention only on its appearance.
Ms. Kennedy is by no means the first or only speaker to have sunk her message in a sea of "speech fillers." Such fillers can be sounds such as "ah" or "hmmmm." They can be junk words such as "like" and "well" or complete sentences such as "you know" and "I mean." They might also include the repetition of words or inserting "right" or "OK" at the end or beginning of phrases. Although linguists do not always agree on the functions fillers and other speech disfluencies serve, audiences are well aware of their negative effects.
Fillers distract. They drown your message. They impair your delivery by diminishing your ability to align pacing, pauses, and vocal variation with content. They make you seem uncertain, unprepared, and unknowledgeable. They take up time and add no value.
No part of your presentation should be given over to meaningless utterances.
Many of us use speech fillers in casual conversation, perhaps even habitually. Because we use them unconsciously, they are all the more difficult to keep out of our speech. But we can work toward that goal by becoming aware of them, by practicing filler-free speech, and by learning to use silent pauses effectively.
To become aware of fillers, you must first listen to yourself. It's likely that fillers occur when you hesitate or want some audience feedback. So pay attention as you are speaking - in meetings, in presentations, in conversations of all types. Ask a friend or colleague to help you track your use of fillers. Record yourself during a presentation or a rehearsal. Listen. Construct a list of the fillers you use and when you use them.
Becoming conscious of usage and frequency of fillers will help you to control them. While such control is not automatic, once you are aware you can consciously decide not to insert a filler. This decision is one you may need to make sentence-by-sentence or phrase-by-phrase, choosing each time not to use a filler. Practice does lead to control, so attempt to reduce your use of fillers during informal and formal communication.
If you've found that you use fillers when you are searching for a word or a phrase, learn to substitute silence. During a pause, keep your eyes focused on a listener. Keep breathing. Once you've found the word you want, start speaking again. Such pauses usually last only a couple of seconds and will not disrupt your delivery the way fillers do.
Listeners need pauses, in fact, small silences during which meaning and understanding form. An effective speaker plans and uses them to emphasize and control messages. As you prepare and rehearse your presentation, rid your speech of fillers but leave room for pauses. For both you and your audience, a silent pause holds meaning. Use every moment of your presentation to deliver that meaning so that your listeners walk away with your message instead of a count of the number of fillers that distracted them from it.